Arizona’s Colorado River zeitgeist

In this morning’s Arizona Star, Tucson journalist Tony Davis asks, “Is California trying to take our water?

In journalism, there’s a joke known as “Betteridge’s Law“: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

As Tony’s story strongly suggests, the notion making the rounds these days in some Arizona political circles that California is out to steal away a share of Arizona’s Colorado River water is crazy talk. No one in Arizona has presented any evidence beyond their state’s historic paranoia about their larger and more politically powerful neighbor’s alleged water ambitions. And all the experts Tony interviewed (disclosure: including me, I’m one of that now apparently) converged on a central conclusion. “That’s crazy talk.” We were mostly more polite, except for Pat Mulroy, who can be counted on to be impolite when the occasion warrants:

Talking like that is “a pathway to mutual destruction,” Mulroy said.

“+1”, as the kids on Slashdot used to say.

But here’s what’s interesting to me about this episode.

Colorado River Basin politics is hampered by a historic distinction between basin scale issues and individual state water politics. At the basin scale, those working on the Colorado River’s politics understand, as Mulroy points out in Tony’s blog sidebar thing, that a negotiated solution is the only way to deal with the basin’s problems, and that it’s likely involve shared sacrifice. That’s abundantly clear when I interview people working at the basin scale. But then each person in the room in those negotiations has to go home and sell whatever deal they come up with to a domestic politics that doesn’t want to hear about the need for shared sacrifice because it’s our water dammit and screw California. Arizona’s century-old fear that California wants to steal its water, as untrue as it seems to be in this situation, is a signature feature of that state’s domestic water politics.

This conflict between the inward-facing talk behind the mostly closed doors of basin-level discussions and the often very public domestic politics within each state seems to me the most likely path to having the whole thing blow up. Domestic political ferment like this, fomenting a sense of interstate water wars, increases the risk of such an explosion.

This is why I’m watching the Arizona situation with such keen interest. This episode, for better or worse, is goin’ in my book, especially Pat Mulroy’s “!!!!”.

One Comment

  1. Yes, John, what you state is true. Betteridge’s Law is used in those meetings too; I have been in a number of meetings over the years where I have heard the statement/question: Do you think I could sell that at home? But seriously, avoiding litigation has been a motivating factor in discussions with the folks at home that has carried some weight in terms of shared sacrifice. In addition, many of the solutions that have been framed over the past 25 years, insofar as the Upper Basin has been concerned, have been sold on the basis of “these are Lower Basin solutions to Lower Basin problems.” That ended with the 2007 Interim Shortage Guidelines which joined the operations of the reservoir systems in the Upper Basin and Lower Basin together much more at the hip.

    Have a great Fourth of July!

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